Portrait by Dorothy Hong
DJ, party promoter, and event producer Justine D has been shaping the New York City nightlife scene for over a decade.
A creative force behind Motherfucker, the early ’00s polysexual rock ’n’ roll party, she is now booking acts for Brooklyn’s newest club/live music outpost, Studio B. The thirtysomething talks with Theme about being raised in New York City’s nightlife and what it means to be a grown-up club kid.
Theme: Tell us about life as a young clubgoer in the ’90s.
Justine D: I started going to “alternative” clubs, when that was a genre of music, in the East Village with my brother when I was 14. They would play new wave, industrial, and goth; those parties got me interested in live shows spanning tiny hardcore to ska and seeing bands play at Limelight and the Palladium. I experienced three or four years when New York was still cool and it was okay to be underage inside of a club.
How did you start promoting?
My friend James Spooner [director of Afro-Punk] and I had seen each other at shows since we were 16. Years later, when I was 22, he invited me to his first night promoting at Life; at the time I was out every night soaking up music and socializing, so according to him, I provided half of the names for his guest list. The second week he asked me to be a sub-promoter for the party, and in a month I was managing the night. I was 22 and like, “This is incredible! I get to have fun and hang out with friends, drink a lot, and get paid for it.”
Justine D and the Motherfucker crew with the New York Dolls
People talk about the Motherfucker Party as this mythical event that encapsulated a certain time and place in New York. Can you talk about producing an event like that for seven years?
We [organizers] had all barely known each other, but Michael T [downtown gay icon, DJ, party promoter] wanted to fuse all these rock ’n’ rollers together. There is a community but it can be cliquey—the gay rock ’n’ roll drag queens don’t always hang out with the mod kids—and we wanted a party where [the subcultures would] come together, make an effort to celebrate coming out to this party, and the mainstream would feel like outcasts, in a way.
In terms of production, right off the bat I just took over. I’m organized and Michael T said he was shocked at how I whipped out a notebook and started taking notes! We talked about every little detail from bathroom attendants understanding that it’s a unisex bathroom (we have a lot of androgynous people) to what we were going to wear that night.
We’re all fabulous and colorful and crazy and you’re coming into our world.
How did the Giuliani age effect your productions?
We didn’t really feel the ramifications of Giuliani’s regime and we just did our thing. New York was still edgy—smoking was still allowed indoors—so we didn’t understand how the city was changing. Michael has a real “fuck-you” attitude towards anything organized or anyone imposing their beliefs on the masses. We brought this attitude to our renegade party. It celebrated outcasts and freaks and provided a safe haven for these people who were in subcultures but still felt like outcasts. It was an environment where people didn’t judge one another but came to party, dance to great music, and to have sex.
Some people have heralded your work at Studio B as the return of downtown New York. Do you feel like downtown New York has actually left downtown for Brooklyn?
Brooklyn has a very different cast of characters. It’s very young, whereas downtown New York has a lot of history to it. [At first] I was a little nervous working in Brooklyn, because I was a Manhattan-centered promoter, and I don’t think our Motherfucker fan base was in Williamsburg/Greenpoint.
I was the first creative person at Studio B and they were like, “Okay, go to work.” Completely empty room, no one had ever heard about it. I had to call all my friends in the business—DJs, promoters, agents, talent—and say, “Hey, I’m part of this new club and you should check it out.” A large reason for our success is that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with friends.
I also love DJ culture so I’ve been bringing that to Studio B, with classic acts like Green Velvet, Carl Craig, and some old techno DJs like Juan Atkins. When booking, I think it’s important to stay current but to also give a reference point for where the music is derived from by bringing in those legendary acts.
What makes New York nightlife so special?
New York nightlife—from the underground to mainstream Studio 54—has always been about very specific scenes. All of the underground scenes from Paradise Garage to Max’s became mainstream and then embraced worldwide. There’s also been a level of celebrity showcasing, like Andy Warhol hanging out at Max’s City to even the Misshapes.
I focus more on what’s being played in the club and not who is necessarily there. One thing that I liked about Motherfucker—celebrities didn’t receive special treatment. We don’t care. We’re all fabulous and colorful and crazy and you’re coming into our world.
Check out the special compilation Justine D put together for Theme’s Soundtrack section, Girls Rock!